The historical context for our President’s “shithole countries”

The chief executive of the United States recently queried why the country attracted immigrants from “shithole” countries like Haiti rather than more desirable places like Norway. Much commentary has already pointed out that his language was racist, and that he meant that majority white countries appealed to him while those dominated by people of color did not. Placing our leader’s crude comment in historical perspective, he targets for exclusion those countries that were created out of European imperialism and colonization. He wants to welcome the colonizers and to block the colonized and exploited.

To answer his possibly facetious question, the reason why we don’t get more migrants from Norway (and other countries like it) is simple. The residents of Norway enjoy many amenities we lack, such as universal health care and free high-quality education. The United States has neither, with for instance poor health care outcomes accompanied by the world’s highest prices. Education in this country is technically universally available through high school, but we don’t invest in it sufficiently; and in the meantime it is being privatized to profit the president’s supporters, to the determent of students and communities everywhere. Above the level of high school, education in the United States increasingly costs students. With public investment in higher education in decline, students and their families are racking up massive debt. Norway has none of these problems. So, Mr. President, that is why we can’t get migrants from the countries you like. They are wealthy and committed to caring for their populations in ways the United States does not. Nothing in the U.S. pulls them to us, since they are quite contented as a general rule to stay where they are.

We do get more immigrants from countries that are worse off than our own. Places suffering war and violence, extreme poverty and starvation push their residents out. Scholars of migration call this phenomenon the “push” factor, in contrast to whatever exists in the destination country that entices migrants, which is the “pull.” Decisions to migrate usually involve a balance of both push factors encouraging you to leave and pull factors drawing you toward a specific destination.

Generally speaking, the countries with strong push factors are the same countries that were colonized by European countries that the President admires. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans moved out to conquer parts of the world, beginning with the Americas. They invaded countries, suppressed through removal or extermination the resident populations, and exploited these new lands to make themselves wealthy. First, the Spanish extracted massive amounts of mineral wealth from the American territories it controlled. Eventually other Europeans erected sugar plantations that generated wealth for their owners. In all these places, the European colonizers forced non-Europeans to work for them. Using indigenous miners or enslaved African field labor, they created lives of brutality and early death for their labor force in order to profit themselves. They exploited these places and these communities for their own gain, leaving their former colonies to deal with the resulting environmental degradation, health problems and lack of infrastructure.

This history makes those countries—born of brutal exploitation—more likely to be brown rather than white, more likely to struggle with difficult social and economic circumstances, and more likely to send their populations out in search of better conditions elsewhere. Of all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has arguably the worst history of exploitation and the worst treatment from the Euro-American colonizers of any single place. As St. Dominique, the colony was the single most profitable plantation society, reaping great wealth for France and great degradation for its massive and severely brutalized slave population. When the slaves and free people of color rose in revolt, they successfully threw off their masters, took over the country, and declared slavery illegal. They also renamed their new republic Haiti. The largest successful slave revolt in the Americas, the Haitian Revolution brought freedom but it also prompted a severe backlash. Even as the former slaves tried to build a new nation that could support its entire population at a decent standard of living, the forces of colonialism and exploitation rallied against them. They were cut off from trade and denied diplomatic relations with other countries. Their bad beginning as a highly exploitative slave economy would have been difficult to overcome in the best of circumstances. With the world arrayed against it, the Haitian Republic struggled and failed to create a prosperous economy that could support its populace. Haiti like any former colony with a harsh past struggles with the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. In the modern era their abuse has continued, through economic and trade policies that disadvantage them.

Although our chief executive is no doubt blissfully ignorant of this history, the countries he disdains were made that way by policies that profited the very Europeans he so admires. Their brutality made them deadly places to live in the colonial era, and their current troubles make them difficult places to live now. Hence the desire to migrate to the United States which—while it doesn’t look very appealing from the vantage point of a wealthy (white) European country—entices those in poor (black) former colonial outposts. That history answers the President’s crude but highly revealing question.

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